Revisiting a Divers’ Classic: The Rolex Submariner

Revisiting a Divers’ Classic: The Rolex Submariner

Rolex released a new version of its Submariner Date watch in 2010, in a steel case with a ceramic bezel. We test that watch in our March-April issue, on newsstands now. But did you know that the Rolex Submariner has been around for almost 60 years, and has been worn not only by professional divers but also by such luminaries as Steve McQueen, Fidel Castro, and Sean Connery (as James Bond)? Click below for watch historian Gisbert Brunner’s in-depth history of this popular diver’s watch.

The story of the Submariner, launched in 1953, really begins in 1926, when Rolex introduced its now-famous water-resistant Oyster case. Thanks largely to its threaded back and screw-down crown, the case provided a degree of impermeability no watch company had achieved before. The Oyster became even less vulnerable to water and dirt in the early 1930s, when Rolex began incorporating its new, self-winding rotor mechanism. (Rolex dubbed its self-winding watches “Perpetual.”) Not having to wind the watch manually meant that the crown needed to be unscrewed only occasionally for setting. Rolex had discovered with its first manual-wind Oyster watches that failing to screw the crown down after winding rendered the supposedly water-resistant watch vulnerable to water and dust entering the case through the crown hole.

As the 1930s progressed, Rolex began to develop watches made specifically for use under water. (The early Oyster and Oyster Perpetual were not thought of as watches for swimming; the point of their impermeable cases was to protect the movement from dirt and accidental exposure to moisture.) The Rolex catalog from 1935 shows a 47-mm wristwatch, Ref. 2533, which has a cushion-shaped Oyster case and a pocketwatch manual-wind movement from Lépine, with a small-seconds display at 9 o’clock. At the time, though, the watch was simply too large for prevailing tastes, and was not a commercial success.

But it was a harbinger of a now well-known dive-watch collaboration that paired Rolex with the Italian company Panerai, which at the time supplied underwater equipment to the Italian Navy. In the mid-1930s, the Navy asked Panerai to supply it with dive watches. Because Panerai had no watchmaking capacity of its own, it turned to Rolex, which sent it watches with Oyster cases and movements made from ébauches from the Swiss watch and movement maker Cortébert. Panerai delivered its first dive-watch prototype to the Italian Navy in 1936, and the company continued to use Rolex-supplied movements into the 1950s. The partnership with Panerai gave Rolex important experience in the manufacturing of dive watches.

Source: watch time